Ciencia En Español: Best Practices for Communicating Science to Spanish Speakers

By Monica May

In San Diego, nearly a third of the population speaks Spanish, and nationally nearly 40 million people speak the language at home. Yet, science communication remains primarily English centered. As the world continues to grapple with the pandemic, face the threat of climate change and more, the need to communicate scientific news–including clinical trial openings, research breakthroughs and awe-inspiring science–in the language people are most comfortable speaking is essential. 

To discuss how to effectively and respectfully communicate science news in Spanish SANDSWA and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ)-San Diego/Tijuana recently teamed up to hold a panel featuring several experts: Fay Crevoshay, director of communications and policy for WiLDCOAST,/ COSTASALVAjE, a bi-national nonprofit that conserves coastal and marine ecosystems; Fabian Rivera-Chavez, Ph.D., an infectious disease researcher and assistant professor of Pediatrics and Biological Sciences at UC San Diego; and Vicente Calderón, a journalist and editor of the Tijuana Press.

The conversation was expertly moderated by Roxana Becerril, a board member of NAHJ-San Diego/Tijuana and a bilingual journalist in San Diego. A recording is available below and a summary of key takeaways follows.

On why it’s important to communicate science news to Spanish speakers:

  • The percentage of Spanish speakers in the U.S. is growing rapidly. Spanish is not only spoken in Mexico but all of Latin America, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. It’s a very important language that is an organic part of the United States. (Fay Crevoshay)
  • During the pandemic we saw the impact of the lack of information in Spanish. When vaccination started rolling out, not spreading the word had a huge impact–the biggest being death. (Fabian Rivera-Chavez)
  • In San Diego, we are two countries, one region geographically. We need to combine our knowledge and capabilities to solve water pollution problems and fight climate change. (Fay Crevoshay)

On prioritizing science coverage in Spanish and English mass media:

  • It’s always been important to find space for science in the mass media. But now it’s critical because we need to combat not only the spread of misinformation but disinformation. The media and scientists need to work together to pass along scientific facts. It’s a matter of saving lives. (Vicente Calderón)
  • As a scientist, we need to work with the media to communicate scientific facts quickly and effectively so people know how to distinguish truth from misinformation. (Fabian Rivera-Chavez)
  • My colleague wrote a story about why the COVID-19 vaccine is safe, effective and wasn’t rushed. I looked for a similar article in Spanish, but couldn’t find any. I decided to work with my colleague and write this story, which ended up being published in the LA Times. However, this process wasn’t easy. It made me realize there’s a need for more writers communicating these topics in Spanish and bilingual scientists who can help communicate to reporters. (Fabian Rivera-Chavez)

On communication best practices: 

  • Customize the lede and hook of your story to the language and culture of the reader. That is the hardest part to translate. When I am assigning stories I hire two writers: one who speaks Spanish and another who speaks English. The hook, way you appeal to the reader, article length and more all differ. (Fay Crevoshay)
  • Be simple and direct. Use clear and concise language people understand, even if they don’t have a lot of education. (Fay Crevoshay)
  • Empathy for what people are afraid of and cultural competency is critical for communicators. For example, when promoting vaccinations in English to Americans, the message was that the government is providing the vaccine for free. However, many Latinos are undocumented. So you need to provide more information for this audience.  For example, stating that no ID is required for the vaccine, etc. (Fabian Rivera-Chavez)

On where to go from here:

  • All scientific institutions need to invest in Spanish communication and community outreach. Scientists are already hard pressed for resources and time, but this should be prioritized. (Fay Crevoshay)
  • If you are a research institution, put your money where your mouth is. Hire more people who are bilingual. Make an effort to reach out to Spanish media and Spanish speakers. (Vicente Calderón)
  • Provide more resources to help bilingual scientists communicate science effectively to their community. (Fabian Rivera-Chavez)
  • Make things as easy as possible for busy reporters. Be creative about how you present science stories to the media. (Vicente Calderón)

Additional insights: 

  • Be mindful of cultural differences within Spanish speaking populations. In California most Latinos are Mexican, but even within Mexico, there is Norteño culture, Mexico City and South Oaxaca which have different accents and words. In Puerto Rico many people are Boricua; in Florida many Spanish speakers are Cuban. Even Argentinians don’t use certain words we use. Communicating to a first-generation Mexican American in California will be different from a third-generation Cuban American in Florida. (Fay Crevoshay and Fabian Rivera-Chavez)
  • Baja California has a great number of scientific institutes, including Ensenada’s Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education, the Autonomous University of Baja California and more. Because of this Baja California has a very high number of scientists per capita. (Vicente Calderón)

We are grateful to the many journalists, outlets and organizations that are already doing critical work on this front, and have listed several readings and resources below. Feel free to reach out to monmay6@gmail.com with any additional resources.

  • Frontiers in communication: CómoSciWri: Resources to Help Science Writers Engage Bicultural and Bilingual Audiences in the United States
  • The Open Notebook En Espanol, overseen by editorial director Rodrigo Pérez Ortega
  • Frontiers in communication: Science Communication in Multiple Languages Is Critical to Its Effectiveness
  • Communicating Ciencia: Resources for engaging the changing faces and voices of mass media–#CÓMOSCIWRI
  • Spanish language outlets in San Diego/Tijuana: 
    • La Prensa San Diego 
    • San Diego Union-Tribune en Espanol 
    • Telemundo San Diego 
    • Univision San Diego 
  • Open Notebook: “On the Shortage of Spanish-Language Science Journalism in U.S. Media”
  • AANS: Scientist Mónica Feliú-Mójer’s Career is Making Science More Equitable, Inclusive
  • LSC Colloquium: Mónica Feliú-Mójer “A Framework to Make Science Communication More Inclusive” 
  • ComSciCon en Espanol, the Spanish language track of ComSciCon. Follow @ComSciConESP for updates. 
  • Communicating Science to Spanish Speakers: Takeaways from the July meeting of the SANDSWA Social Justice in Science Writing club
  • Audubon and National Geographic publish science articles in Spanish.

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